Friday, September 30, 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Zsuzsi Gartner employs bracing black humour in her collection of stories, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. They are set in or near Vancouver, often in a cul-de-sac. Random elements pop up more than once: terry cloth shorts; children riding unicycles; a lost person showing up astride the back of a giant turtle. Each story, however, is inventively unique. Some incorporate fantastical elements, like the angels who inhabit the bodies of teenagers for a while in We Come in Peace.

If forced to pick a favourite, I'd choose Floating Like a Goat, which is in the form of a letter from a mother to her daughter's Grade one art teacher, written "in such a deeply caffeinated fugue state that I fear my letter to you will come across as intemperate." I was sympathetic to this mother, incensed by the teacher's imposed strictures, such as insisting "that when six-year-old children draw people or animals their feet MUST be touching the ground." " 'I guess she's never heard of Chagall,' I said to Georgia, trying to sound offhand, as I'm well aware that it's considered verboten to undermine a teacher's authority."

Gartner isn't shy about exposing the comical underside of modern society. It's like she has a sharp knife point to deftly slip under one's guard, moving her readers from laughter to full danger alertness.

Readalikes: The thorny vine pictured on the cover, the humour and the supernatural elements all brought Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters to mind. For more social satire, try anything Ali Smith. Gartner's Investment Results May Vary, with its litany of "huh, huh, huh" at the end reminded me of one of Lorrie Moore's stories from Birds of America. Others brought Jackie Kay's story My Daughter, the Fox (in Wish I Was Here) to mind. I could keep going like this, but really, Gartner has her own fabulous style.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Two storylines converge on a chance meeting between Cora and Paul, strangers who sit across from each other on the train between London and Cardiff. Marital infidelity, disputes over agricultural practices, an adult daughter who goes missing, and a husband who disappears are some of the plot devices that hooked me in Tessa Hadley's reflective novel. I feel like I know the characters well and can imagine them going on with their lives beyond hopeful ending to the story.

Juanita McMahon narrates the audiobook [Clipper Audio; 10 hours] production. McMahon's interpretations of Cora's Welsh and the various English voices were fine, although the Polish accents for a couple of minor characters weren't convincing.

Readalikes: We Had It So Good by Linda Grant (for character-driven domestic fiction) and maybe Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (for the double storyline about families, but minus romance).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tell It to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

A dead body is found in the snow outside the home of the Dharma family in smalltown British Columbia in 1980. The head of the family is Vikram, an abusive tyrant who beats his children and humiliates his wife. Suman Dharma and her children, Varsha and Hemant, take turns telling us what happened to Anu, the dead woman who had been renting the cottage at the back of the Dharma property. Anu's voice is also present, in the form of her journal entries.

I like books with multiple points of view, but it was creepy to see the world through the eyes of Varsha, a horrible and manipulative 13-year-old. It's an unsettling novel.

P.S. To whomever wrote the jacket copy for Tell It to the Trees: the town of Merritt, B.C. is not located in northern Canada. It is only one degree of latitude north of the U.S./Canadian border. So there.

Note added October 23, 2011: Yesterday Badami said her setting was a composite, not a real town, set in northern BC. I stand corrected.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Escape to the deepest Amazon in Ann Patchett's wonderful new novel. Dr. Marina Singh leaves her Minnesota existence far behind when she travels to Manaus in Brazil to find out what happened to her colleague and lab partner, Anders Eckman. Their employer is Vogel, a giant pharmaceutical company, which has been funding top secret research among the Lakashi people. The Lakashi women remain fertile and bear children well into their 70s. Dr. Annick Swenson is the formidable scientist heading the research, and she is also Marina's former professor. Another complication is Jim Fox, head of Vogel, who has been having a clandestine romantic relationship with Marina for over a year, since his wife died.

Patchett has created a rich cast of characters, a vivid setting and surprising plot twists. The ending is the biggest treat of all. The narrative arc comes to a satisfying conclusion, yet so much possibility remains open for the characters to make further choices and to live on beyond the final pages. Very highly recommended!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Better Mother by Jen Sookfong Lee

Born in Vancouver in 1950, a gay boy comes of age in his Chinese family, feeling like an alien. Danny feels more affinity for an exotic dancer that he meets in a Chinatown alley than for his own mother. In the early 1980s, Danny works as a wedding photographer by day and cruises for anonymous sex in Stanley Park at night. Moving back and forth through time, Danny's story intertwines with that of the dancer, who is known as Miss Val or the Siamese Kitten.

This all sounded promising, but I was disappointed because Jen Sookfong Lee's style put me off. Both Danny and Miss Val seemed like stock characters. Danny is attracted to fashion and silky fabrics from a young age and that sums up his early gayness. Couldn't Lee have done better in imagining him?

After three chapters, I skimmed through the middle, read the ending and brought it back to the library. It annoyed me to be told what Danny was feeling, rather than being shown: "The fulfillment of his wants helps him to believe that he is not a failure" when he's on his way home from another faceless sexual encounter. Danny's poor relationship with his father was presented as a given, with minimal exploration. To be fair, there might have been more character development in the middle parts that I skimmed. I didn't pay much attention to Miss Val's backstory, which included giving up her daughter.

Lee was inspired by a real-life photographer of burlesque dancers, Theodore Saskatche Wan. I found the author's note at the end more interesting than anything else in the book.

Readers who liked The Secret Daughter are likely to also enjoy The Better Mother. Another character-driven historical set in Vancouver's Chinatown (and one that I loved) is The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

"In the old days in Nigeria, people were kind of scared of twins -- some people still are. Traditionally, twins are supposed to live in three worlds: this one, the spirit world and the Bush, which is a sort of wilderness of the mind." Sarah Harrison explains this to her eight-year-old daughter, Jessamy, after Jess learns that she had a twin sister who died at birth. Jess is a precocious child who has been advanced a year at her school in London and is having great trouble adapting to her new class.

While on a visit to her extended family in Nigeria, Jess makes friends with another girl, Tilly Tilly. When Jess returns home to England, she's delighted to find Tilly Tilly has moved there. It takes a while before Jess realizes that nobody else can see Tilly Tilly, but that doesn't mean she isn't dangerous. Things get pretty spooky!

The Icarus Girl is a challenging book that generated great discussion at my book group last night. There are so many mysterious things, from the choice of title (why refer to a Greek myth? Is Jess the Icarus girl, or is that Tilly Tilly?) to the ambiguous ending. (I thought the final poem made things clear, but not everyone agreed with me.) I'm really looking forward to Oyeyemi's latest book, Mr. Fox.

Readalikes: For another story about twin girls with joint British/Nigerian heritage, try 26a by Diana Evans. Nigerian author Ben Okri's The Famished Road is narrated by a spirit child.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi

The vegetarian dishes in Plenty are exquisitely photographed and there are lovely line drawings between chapters and even the cover is puffy like a photo album -- maybe that's why I ended up treating this as more of an art book than a recipe book. I'm sad that other people are waiting for it and therefore I must return it to the library, since I'm not ready to part with it yet. I have read through most of it, dipping in wherever the pages opened, enjoying Ottolenghi's introductions as well as browsing through the recipes themselves.

I did try a few of the recipes, such as polenta made with fresh corn. That one was a disappointment because it was a lot of work and I found the end result too sweet. "Mixed beans with many spices and lovage" turned out great and I was happy to find an actual recipe that called for lovage, since I have a giant plant in my garden. Ottolenghi includes heaps of fresh herbs - at least a tablespoon per person - in his recipes, which is lovely. His penchant for herbs comes across clearly in the recipe titled "Steamed rice with herbs (or, actually, herbs with rice)."

Mostly, this book has inspired me to cook creatively, rather than to follow instructions on its pages. I'll be borrowing this beautiful book again. Meanwhile, it's good to know that Ottolenghi has a recipe column in the Guardian.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Beggar's Feast by Randy Boyagoda

Born under an unlucky horoscope in 1899 in Ceylon, a Sinhalese village boy was given to a Buddhist temple when he was 10. The monk who sexually abused the boy called him Squirrel. (This crime against children is obviously not only perpetrated by Catholic priests.)

After three years, the boy escaped the temple and gave himself a new name: Sam Kandy. He used whatever means necessary to get ahead, including murder. He made his fortune, then lost it, then got rich again, but it wasn't until old age that Sam discovered peace and redemption. Sam's life spanned a century of momentous changes in the country that became Sri Lanka.

I spent four months there in 1978 and enjoyed being transported back to that tropical island through Boyagoda's writing. His prose style includes lots of description - and some sentences run to 15 lines - but the story still moves along. Important plot points, especially violent ones, are often slyly worded. I would sometimes be as startled by the way they were revealed as by the content itself. It's not a bad thing to feel safely removed from the civil unrest and violence in the story.

Family saga readalikes also set in Sri Lanka include: Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai; Mosquito by Roma Tearne and Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John by Chester Brown

I've read memoirs written by call girls and rent boys, and feminist theory both for and against prostitution, but this is the first time I've encountered the activity from the viewpoint of a thoughtful john. Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown tackles this deeply personal topic with a frankness bordering on clinical detachment. In among the (many!) pages of appendices and notes at the end, Brown's good friend Seth contributes these comments: "I often jokingly refer to Chet as 'the robot.' [...] He's definitely an oddball. That said, he is also the kindest, gentlest and most deeply thoughtful oddball I know."

Seth's praise rings true. Brown's attitude towards the women that he saw was considerate and even gallant. The book opens in Toronto in June 1996 with the chapter "My Last Girlfriend." Brown maintained a platonic relationship with his ex-girlfriend and they continued to live together even when Sook-Yin's new boyfriend moved in. (Brown's lack of jealousy when his girlfriend was with another guy was of particular interest to me, since I too was born without the jealousy gene.) Afterwards, chapters are titled with the (fake) names of the prostitutes he saw, ending with "Back to Monogamy" in 2010.

In addition to his sexual encounters, Brown portrays the many discussions he had with his friends about prostitution. I like that Brown isn't afraid to challenge cultural attitudes about morality. He further refutes the usual arguments surrounding the issue in the appendices. Philosophy and ideas about marriage, sex and monogamy permeate the text. Did you know there may be a connection between the twelfth century Cathars and French court troubadours, and the development of the concept of romantic love?

Brown's careful black on white ink work is nicely balanced between subtlety and strength. I was reminded of Seth's Wimbledon Green, but Brown's work is more realistic. The book has a lot of nudity - as you would expect from the subject matter. Where Brown shows himself lying naked after sex and talking with the woman, I find the scenes quite touching in their vulnerability.

I think this memoir will appeal to a lot of different readers. As Robert Crumb states in his introduction, "this is a very enlightening book, as well as being entertaining." Readalike: Funny Misshapen Body by Jeffrey Brown.

One last comment: in the notes, Brown identifies the restaurant on Queen Street where he and Seth held a particular conversation - it's called Terroni. I was in that same restaurant last year! I remember that a woman who joined our group set her giant Starbucks drink on the table and sipped it throughout our meal. Hmm... that would make a good cartoon strip, wouldn't it?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

In a combination travelogue and history book, American journalist Ian Frazier explains his fascination with Russia, and Siberia in particular. He made five trips to Siberia in 16 years, plus another 5 or 6 trips to western Russia during that time.

Frazier digresses from his travel journals onto topics such as the empire of Chingis Khan, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, the Decemberists, famous duels, and petty excuses for banishment to Siberia. Sometimes brief, sometimes extensive, these side tangents reminded me of Bill Bryson's style in At Home. History, politics, geography and people - there's more than a bit of everything, because this isn't a short book. I listened to the MacMillan audiobook, 20.5 hours, read by the author. Occasionally Frazier sounded like he was yawning as he spoke. In the print version, I would have skipped over the Russian words and phrases, but I appreciated hearing them pronounced for me.

The anecdotes from Frazier's camping journey across the continent were my favourite, especially hearing the details of daily Russian life as he encountered it, like wedding parties celebrating in the middle of the highway. Frazier's Russian driver on this trip had a knack for repairing their vehicle with bits of garbage salvaged from the roadside. He would clean the bug-encrusted windshield by splashing it with some drinking water, breaking apart a cigarette and sprinkling it over the glass, then dismantling one wiper blade to render the whole thing spotless.

Frazier saw a remarkably large number of beautiful women in Siberian cities and brought up the ongoing tragedy of the sex slave trade. I thought of Zara, who escaped this horror in Sofi Oksanen's novel Purge. Siberia is not on my list of places to see, yet I really enjoyed travelling there vicariously.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Inspired by quirky vintage photographs, author Ransom Riggs has dreamed up a story about an unusual orphanage located off the coast of Wales. One of the orphans grew up to be Abe, Jacob's Jewish grandfather. At 15, Jacob had long given up believing in his grandfather's outlandish tales about growing up among orphaned children with peculiar talents... until Jacob saw his first monster. His adventures began then.

The book is sprinkled with over 40 reproductions of old photos. If you're in the mood for something completely different, check this out. It kept me amused and intrigued, although the gimmick wore a bit thin by the (cliffhanger) end. Grade 7 - adult.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Beautiful & Pointless (A Guide to Modern Poetry) by David Orr

This amusing and enlightening book about poetry is something that I'll recommend to many people, and not just my poet friends. It is also a guidebook that will give confidence to readers who have been hesitant to travel the pathways of poetry. David Orr is an award-winning poetry critic whose work is "clear-eyed, opinionated and idiosyncratic" (as praised by Tom Perrotta).

In this book, Orr demystifies contemporary poetry for general readers. Rather than talking about poetry "as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone" it is helpful to think of it as a foreign destination that "both welcomes and confounds" a traveller. I was tickled that Orr used Belgium as a hypothetical example, since I've just returned from a trip there. Orr writes that you would not "decide in advance that you'd never understand Belgians because you couldn't immediately determine why their most famous public statue is a depiction of a naked kid peeing in a fountain. You'd probably figure, hey, that's what they like in Belgium; if I stick around long enough, maybe it'll all make sense."

Why bother with poetry? In the final chapter, Orr addresses this question with humility and wit. The "typical defense of poetry tends to assume that it's enough to point out that the art form does something interesting or clever or attractive, when the real difficulty lies in demonstrating that poetry does something so interesting, clever, or attractive that people should forego other activities in order to enjoy its interestingly clever attractiveness."

Forego other activities and treat yourself to Orr's delightful little book. (And then read some poetry!)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Along a Long Road by Frank Viva

Deceptively simple, this picture book about a bicycle journey rewards repeated readings. The rhymes ("around a small town and down"), concepts (up, down, into, out, over) and counting (to three) capture only some of the appeal for young children. There are plenty of pictorial jokes and details, such as a snail beside the cyclist as he climbs a hill and a bird flying as he swiftly descends. The pages also offer a treasure hunt of transportation vehicles of every kind.

Frank Viva's graphic retro style reminds me of artwork by Pascal Blanchet and J.otto Seibold. Viva uses swoopy curves in his bold shapes and has chosen muted primary colours in addition to black and cream: gray-blue, deep red, and golden yellow. The yellow is used only for the road and is cleverly printed with shiny slickness on matte paper, to wonderful effect.

When I learned from a note inside that the book was created as a single, continuous thirty-five-foot long piece of art I immediately wished to see it spread out like that. Check out the book trailer at Frank Viva's website.